Sunday, August 9, 2009

Front and Center: It shoots, it scores

Sometimes (but not often) I am wrong about books.

When I first heard about Dairy Queen by Catherine Gilbert Murdock, I was convinced it would be the most boring thing since a drive through Indiana. "The main character is so normal! She goes to the mall!" I was told. So what? Turns out, that normal main character had a hell of a voice and something to talk about other than her love interest. Due to its stellar writing, Dairy Queen ended up as one of my favorite books of 2007. I thought the 2008 sequel, The Off Season, was even better.

Front and Center (Houghton, October 2009, many thanks to Laura Sinton at HMH for sending me a copy) is the final book in Murdock's trilogy about small-town sports star D.J. Schwenk. It begins just after the events of The Off Season, so D.J. is gearing up for her favorite sport: basketball. D.J. plays center but knows she's got the athletic skills to play point guard. What's holding her back from the coveted point guard position is her lack of ability to voice what she's thinking. The point guard's job is to act as a sort of director on the court, and D.J. would rather die than shout instructions in front of all her teammates. When her coach calls her into his office for what D.J. thinks will be a talking-to about, well, her lack of talking, he springs a surprise on her: Even though she's only a junior, colleges are already stepping up to recruit her. If she wants a scholarship, which is the only way she knows she can afford to go to college, D.J. will have to make her college decision in the next few weeks.

D.J.'s familiar with the college ball process, having two older brothers who play Division I football. After seeing a disastrous end to a University of Minnesota basketball game, however, she's pretty sure she wants nothing to do with Division I women's basketball. Going to a Division III college will take off a lot of the pressure and that way if she screws up, well, it's just Division III, right?

All of this sounds good on paper, but there's one thing D.J. isn't factoring in: Athletics are her calling. She might not be the most outstanding student, but she has sports in her blood and coaching in her brain. Everyone sees this except D.J. herself, and it takes a lot of nagging, a lot of love, and a physics genius who can't play basketball to make her see what she's worth.

Don't laugh, but I think Front and Center is a perfect readalike for another favorite book of mine from 2007: Dramarama by E. Lockhart. D.J. is the complete opposite of Sadye: an introvert, terrified of being on stage, anything but outspoken. What both books have in common is their message, which is that you have to follow your true talents even if they scare you, even if they take you in a different direction than the one you planned. The best thing about the Dairy Queen series is how meticulous Murdock is about taking us through D.J.'s thoughts and internal processes. She great use of first-person narration and shows us how D.J., who doesn't say anything out loud to anyone if she can help it, grows from someone who does everything she's told without question to someone who thinks not just for, but about, herself and her personal goals.

I'm sad that this series has come to a close, but I'm thrilled with the way it ended and I can't wait to see what Murdock will offer next for YA readers.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for writing about this wonderful series. I love D.J. and wish I could buy a football jersey in Red Bend colors with SCHWENK on the back. I have my copy of "Front and Center" preordered. I just listened (again) to the audiobooks of the first two in preparation for this one. I highly recommend the recording. The reader, Natalie Moore, is a genius.

Carlie Webber said...

@ The Renewable Virgin: I absolutely love your football jersey idea! I would buy one in an instant.

I've heard great things about the DQ audiobooks but I haven't listened to them. I hear the reader has a terrific Wisconsin accent. Having lived in Wisconsin for four years, I can just imagine how it sounds.